Some Poems Don’t Rhyme

For the first time in a very long time, I felt my journey towards self-actualization is almost achievable.  As long as I can remember, I love to write. The third week of September 2019, had been a promising one. It was a continuous meeting of minds…..the minds of the travelers, the story tellers and the poets.  First it was the Jasmina Awards 2019 ceremony at The Intermark Mall, and then it was the ZafigoX2019 women travelers convention at the Sheraton Imperial.  Two meetings that couldn’t have been more different, with respect to objective, pomposity and attendance but both gave me a push in the right direction with respect to my writing potential.

 

Firstly, there was the Jasmina Awards 2019 ceremony, held for the first time in conjunction with the celebration of the Malaysia Day.  It was presented by Diversecity KL, targeted to bring out the Malaysian writers and poets among the above sixties. According to Tan Sri Vincent Tan, founder of Berjaya Corporation, the general English proficiency of the baby-boomer generation was without doubt superior to the later generations. This of course was a result of Malaysian government educational policy at that time with respect to the use of the English language in schools.

 

The event was low key and attended by a small group of family members and supporters of winners for the three categories, held in one cosy corner of the third floor of the Intermark Mall. The three categories were My Malaysian Story, Love and Journey, for both stories and poetry sections.  Dr Jasmina Kuka of WISE (Working on Impact & Social Empowerment) founder of the Jasmina Awards, together with Datin Seri Sunita Rajakumar, Festival Director of Kuala Lumpur International Arts Festival (KLIAF) were responsible for the realization of the Jasmina Awards.

 

Despite the impression of being sedate and low key, it boosted the morale of retirees like me who won awards for our story writing and  poetry at a ripe age of over 60s. Suddenly, these story writers and poets, found at last a recognition and dared to celebrate a merit well-deserved.  There was no prizes to be won but at the award ceremony, excerpts of winning stories and winning poems were read.

 

The Sheraton Imperial ZafigoX2019 women travelers convention was a vibrant event attended by mostly young women from travel-related community. There were a few of us oldies aged between 61 till 69 years old among the attendees.  Some were writers, journalists, bloggers, photographers, owners of travel-related businesses and some were still deciding whether travel writing was anything they wanted to do. It was well-organized and well sponsored by big names like Air Asia, Astro Awani, Uniclo, Sheraton etc.

 

But having attended both events, I must concede that no poem was better read than the one recited by Sheena Baharuddin (Fig 1). Her rendition of two poems, namely Apax and Moles at the convention was a superb read with heightened animation. The event was graced by many exceptional speakers on the 21st September.   Among the first  to speak was of course the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Hannah Yeoh in conversation with the Chairman, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir. Hannah Yeoh is young and refreshing. I must admit there was no pretense with this young minister and is, by her own admission, “shallow” because she prefers shopping malls to museums wherever she travelled.

 

Figure 1: Sheena Baharuddin, “Every body is a poem”.

 

One exceptional speaker was a young lady who completed the Explorers Grand Slam by climbing the likes of the Everest all over the world in 20 years and 112 days. Her name was Marin Minamaya, a Guinness World Record holder. Her courage and determination from as young as 15 years old was admirable. Alena Murang (Fig 2), the sape musician and  cultural artist, made an impact with her singing and sape strumming. The sape is a lute instrument famous among the Kayan and Kenyah tribes of Central Borneo.  There were many other exceptional speakers like Nila Tanzil, Deborah Chan, Deborah Henry, Suzanne Ling, who have given a lot of themselves towards the betterment of the less fortunate.

Figure 2: Elena Murang on her sape.

But it was the travel writing workshop held at the end of the day that I enjoyed most.  It was conducted by the editor of Zafigo. Eliza Thomas was exceptional at conducting the workshop on travel writing and she left a lasting impression on how interesting a travel writer’s job could be. We attendees were promised an opportunity to be published if we would submit a 1,200 word winning travel article.  On top of that we would be paid RM100 each. Getting paid is any writers dream even if  for RM100.

 

I must admit I had to look long and hard at the speaker during the travel writing workshop. Eliza Thomas, the editor, standing  right there in front of the class next to the whiteboard, was unrecognizable.  I would have to take the good advice of Deputy Minister, Hannah Yeoh, “Use your best, young photo if you want to have an online presence, because these photos live forever”.  I suspect many famous people, Eliza Thomas included, subscribe to this philosophy.

 

Excerpt Read at The Jasmina Awards 2019

The Jasmina Award ceremony on 16 September 2019, Intermark Hall

3rd Place

 Category: My Malaysian Story

“ A Kind of Paradise”

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The Award Winners at the Jasmina Award Ceremony (me standing 3rd from the left)

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If there is one place I would rather be, it has to be Kampong Mangkok.  Kampong Mangkok sits on a promontory  flanked by turquoise blue waters of the South China Sea on one side and the mangrove river called Sungai Setiu on the other.  On a clear day, you could see the outcrops of  Pulau Perhentian, Lang Tengah and Pulau Redang from a beach called Pantai Penarik.  The shimmering blue waters reminded me of Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, “The sea is the last free place on earth”. There is something soothing about the sound of ocean waves, the repetitive slow whooshing sound as the warm sand get pulled back into the sea with every retreating wave.

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A few hours of sleep afterwards and the alarm went off again.  It was time for the usual “meeting ” between creature and Creator.  Out on the veranda,  rubbing sleep from my eyes, while seated cross-legged on the prayer mat, the ritual for early morning prayers and zikr, amidst the cold morning breeze, commenced. Hours later, as I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering carpet of calm  in the first blush of the sun. The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees.  Another day of endless tranquility filled with the sounds of life – the chirping birds, the chattering monkeys, the croaking frogs, the rhythm of the waves and  the deep sound of well-mannered four-stroke fishing boat engine.  It was the beginning of a new day.

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Wherever I traveled, wherever I stayed, my mind would wonder back to the promise of  beautiful Kampong Mangkok.  Sitting on the verandah, observing the changing colors of the skyline, basking in the realm of serenity and peace that a beach-front kampong life provides (Fig 4), while tapping away at the keyboards, is paradise to me.  How could it not be, when you could capture the vibrant sunrise from the beach in Kampong Telaga Papan and the stupendous sunset from the mangroves in Kampong Mangkok .

 

 

Finding “the one” on The Trans-Mongolian Express

Beijing Central station was a sea of people that morning and the van dropping us was not allowed into the station.  It probably would have taken an hour or so just to get inside the station, judging by the size of the crowd building up.  I have never seen so many lines of people queuing up to buy train tickets before.  There were at least 30 lines that morning. Getting into the main building with luggage bags in tow, was no mean feat given the pushing and the jostling crowd.  It was absolute chaos that morning.  I remember the van driver Sam, advising us “There is no time to be polite in Beijing”.  We finally managed to get to the platform after going through security checks and ticket verification. After waiting for what seemed like forever, the K3 train finally arrived.   Like excited school-girls, we quickly made our way up the steps and through the corridors looking for our cabin, a 2nd class hard sleeper with four berths.

 

As the K3 train started pulling out of Beijing Central station, I felt excitement building up.  After all, K3 was a rail journey of a lifetime, a tick off my bucket-list; a 7,622 kilometer-journey from Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan Bator. The train crosses three large countries and five time zones. There are fourteen stops (Fig 1) on K3 between Beijing and Moscow, with a border check  and a rail gauge change at Erlian.  Imagination ran wild as the wheels turned and pulled, the whooshing  and the hissing sound of the engine shrieking a promise of adventure.  And as you sit by the window, you discover the beauty in the changing landscapes.  Horses running wild on the grassland, the sun peeping in between the trees, the endless glimpses of the beautiful Lake Baikal and the fleeting images of the mountains as the train chugged along.  Inside the train, you sometimes  meet complete strangers who share a story a two about their own life’s journey.  The Trans Mongolian, like the Trans Siberian, is a journey that had captured the imagination of travelers, poets, artists and writers. It is a dream adventure.

Figure 1: Passengers taking a break on the platform of the Novosibirsk train station.

Long-distance train travel has captured the likes of travel writer, Paul Theroux, who once wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), his first in a series of books dedicated to train journeys, “I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it”.  What is it about long-distance train journeys that is so mesmerizing?

 

For a start, the train is perhaps the most comfortable way of travelling long distances, despite the fact that a hard-sleeper meant six straight days of life in a cubicle, 1.5 meters wide, squeezing between oversized luggage bags, tight bunk beds and often, caught in the cross-fire of  other contentious travel mates.  The freedom of movement along the endless corridors allows a sense of space, so you don’t feel trapped as  in an aeroplane.

 

Standing by a window of a corridor (Fig 2) for many hours, trying to catch glimpses of village life as the train snaked its way across the Gobi Desert and the steppes, I was spellbound.  The steppes, populated mainly by the world’s last wild horses and camels, were huge rolling grasslands sometimes dotted by one or two white felt yurts or gers, a symbol of nomadic lifestyle still predominant in Mongolia, at one time, land of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horses.

 

Figure 3: A Buffet Coach on the Trans Mongolian Express K3, with decor reminiscent of days gone by.

Once the train was well on the way, passengers headed for the buffet coach (Fig 3). Even though I was counting on meeting some interesting people in the buffet coach, I desperately needed some  time to gather my own thoughts and make notes. I finally found a table opposite a couple of middle-aged British ladies.  In the company of the two ladies, who sometimes giggled like two star-struck teenagers, was a young male, a Russian model. I recognized him while we were waiting on the platform back in Beijing Central station.  I could tell he was a model by his gait and a polished look of self-importance.

 

After some thirty minutes, my text neck left me stiff and uncomfortable.  I decided to put away my mobile and initiate a little conversation with the two ladies instead.  I said hello and the two ladies, probably in their early 50s, reciprocated with a hello and a broad smile.  They were from UK; one was a business development manager and the other was in  hospitality services.

 

When the K3 train arrived at Ulan Bator, a young Mongolian girl and her friend boarded the K3 and occupied the cabin next to ours.  The Mongolian girl, Tsatsral, was heading to St Petersburg to register for a university education.  A big buxom Russian lady later joined them.  The Russian lady was a teacher who taught Russian language to a school in Ulan Bator, I was later informed.  Russian is a second language in Mongolia just like English is to Malaysia.

 

While walking down the K3 corridor one morning, I met a young Chinese couple in their late twenties in one of the First Class coach.  The couple were from Beijing and were on their honeymoon. They were planning to take a photo on the platform of the Malinsk station (two stops before Novosibirsk station). They decided to celebrate their honeymoon in St Petersburg.  I thought it was  most romantic to start a honeymoon by traveling on the Trans Mongolian Express.

 

This surprising encounter on K3 triggered a whimsical notion that there is something undeniably romantic about train travel.  James Blunt in his song “You’re beautiful” dealt with fleeting moments of aching, unrequited longing experienced on a train journey. A study by East Coast Trains to mark National “I Love Trains” Week, uncovered that one third of British people believed that rail travel was synonymous with finding “the one”.

 

Finding “the one” may not be the reason travelers throw caution to the wind and chat to strangers. But trains do inspire an atmosphere of impulse, stimulating  travelers to connect with strangers.  For me, taking a train anywhere evoke a feeling of nostalgia and the  Trans Mongolian Express trip was unforgettable in so many ways. The rhythm of “tchjk”, “tchjk” as the metal wheels hit the rail track, linger on long after the trip.

 

The next time you feel a need for some adventure or romance, try spending six days on the Trans Mongolian Express.  You will never know who you meet.  You might even meet “the one”…..

K3 stop at Irkutsk.